Whipping It Up
Richard Wilson believes things might be looking up for British politics. Not if Steve Thompson’s play Whipping It Up is anything to go by, says Steve Cramer
‘One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is you end up being governed by your inferiors.’ Given that Plato’s comment was made two-and-a-half thousand years ago, it’s astonishing how fresh it sounds today. Yet, for all the great philosopher’s fair warning, there’s little wonder that so few young people vote today. As the rabble who represent us reconvene at Westminster, after much speculation about an election, a piece of theatre arrives in Scotland which appears to confirm our worst fears about our politicians.
Steve Thompson’s play, set in a conservative whip’s office, follows an alarming but comical foray into the politics of the media. Thompson’s last work, Damages, a grim appreciation of a tabloid newspaper night desk, wasn’t short of bile, but Whipping It Up looks set to go further still on the subject of politicians.
In the lead role of the conservative chief whip Richard Wilson surpasses his grim-faced Victor Meldrew, adding malice to misery. ‘The play does ask a question about whether this is a democratic system, and politicians don’t emerge as glorious, far from it,’ he says. ‘Still, most of the politicians who’ve gone to see it – we’ve had quite a lot in – have talked about it being pretty accurate.’
The piece creates a storyline that appears more plausible now than it did when the play opened, nearly a year ago, in London. ‘The Tories have been elected by a very narrow margin, three seats, and there’s a leadership challenge, with the old guard moving against Cameron who’s served his purpose,’ continues Wilson. ‘At the time I took the role, I didn’t think it was possible the Tories could win. I still don’t, but the last few weeks make it more likely.’ As with Damages, the writer uses familiar forms to convey unfamiliar messages. ‘There’s a backbench revolt and a young female journalist trying to uncover the notoriously secret world of the whips office by inveigling her way into the whips’ underpants. So there’s a kind of thriller element, but it’s very real,’ adds Wilson.
In the piece the whips use blackmail over the various financial and sexual degeneracies of their charges to get their way, and neither of the main parties emerge with any credit. Yet Wilson, a Labour activist and high profile supporter, remains attached to his party. The conversation drifts, at his volition, into contemporary politics. ‘We make fun of constituencies. One MP says the best view of his constituency is through the rear view mirror as he’s driving away. But a lot of MPs do commit to their constituencies – it isn’t about the greasy pole.’
He adds his own political predictions: ‘There was plenty of evidence of Blair’s rather presidential style. I’m hoping that Mr Brown will bring in a swing back to parliament, where the cabinet and, indeed MPs are listened to. I get a sense, from what people are saying, that everything is on the table again.’
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mon 5–Sat 10 Nov.